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A Two-in-One Day Trip from Nagasaki

Nagasaki is one of Japan’s most-recognized cities, albeit not for the most positive reason. And yet up until recently, I hadn’t really explore much of Nagasaki prefecture.

The city itself is a big part of this reason. First, it’s somewhat cumbersome to access, even with the new Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen. Secondly, one you get there, there’s simply a lot to do, from historical attractions like Oura Cathedral and the Dejima settlement, to one of Japan’s best Chinatowns, to the Peace Park and Ground Zero.

If you are considering a day trip from Nagasaki, you’re probably asking yourself “is Shimabara worth visiting?” or some variation of this question. The answer is “yes”—and there’s a bonus add-on that can sweeten this deal further.

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Why You Should Rent a Car to Visit Shimabara and Unzen

While it’s easy enough to ride public transportation from Nagasaki to Shimabara and then from Shimabara up to Mt. Unzen, the reality is that this is far more cumbersome than you might think. This isn’t an especially populated (or popular) part of Japan; trains and buses aren’t fast; they don’t come often. Although Shimabara and Unzen look close to Nagasaki’s city center on the map, this can easily become an all-day ordeal.

Conversely, in spite of the many downsides of renting a car in Japan, the ease of using this method to explore these destinations really counter-balances all of them. With your own set of wheels, you have the freedom to spend as long or as little as you want in each place, and to see as many or few places as you want. And all at a price that’s likely comparable to what you’d spend on trains and buses anyway.

How to Structure Your Shimabara-Unzen Day Trip

Start at the koi drains


Now, I’ll be honest: Shimabara is not the only place in Japan where you can see nishikigoi swimming through drains. Off the top of my head, this is also the case in both Gujo-hachiman, as well as in Tsuwano, in the San’in region. However, if you put “Koi no oyogu machi” (literally, koi swimming town) into Google Maps, you’ll be pleased with wear it takes you—promise.

(And Yusui Garden Shimeisou)


Another place to stop before you head from Shimabara to Unzen? Yusui Garden Shimeisou, a former residence that has been converted into a quasi-public garden. It’s very small—you won’t spend longer than 15-20 minutes here—but your admission ticket includes a free cup of green tea, which you can enjoy while looking down on the property’s pond (in which koi also swim).

Continue at Shimabara Castle


Like all but 12 throughout the rest of Japan, Shimabara Castle is not “original.” It is massive, however, and is surrounded by a wide moat filled with lotuses—and, if you come in early April, surrounded by thickets of sakura trees. Do note that this is about a kilometer north of the gardens and where you find the koi, so depending on the weather and your timing, you may want to drive and park here.

Go as high up Mt. Unzen as you can


If you decide that your answer to the question “is Unzen worth visiting?” is “yes” (and, in particular, if you have a car), you’ll want to drive from the center of Shimabara up Mt. Unzen. Even if the Unzen Ropeway isn’t running (it wasn’t on the day I visited), it’s worth it to drive all the way up to the base station, where you have a great view of everything below.

End at Unzen Jigoku


I love the opportunity to walk amid geothermal vents and bubbling geysers, and the large Unzen Jigoku area presents the perfect opportunity to do this. As a bonus, there are several cats that live within the attraction area, although I won’t say they’re conspicuous enough that’s you’d notice them if you didn’t already know to look for them.

Should You Stay Overnight in Shimabara or Unzen?

Usually, when I go out of my way to stay in a smaller city or more off-the-path region, it’s because doing so will allow me to avoid crowds. Sleeping in Nikko, for example, rather than going on a day trip from Tokyo, allows you to have a few hours in the morning and evening to appreciate the serenity of all the ancient attractions there. Both Shimabara and Mt. Unzen, however, tend to be relatively devoid of tourists.

On the other hand, if you decide not to follow my transportation advice—in other words, you use public transportation (and not a rental car) to get from Nagasaki to Unzen—then it might make more sense to stay overnight. In terms of where you stay, there are options. Simple accommodation like Hotel Mio is available in Shimabara’s town center; at Unzen you might sleep at the higher-end Unzen Kyushu Hotel near Unzen Jigoku.

Other FAQ About Visiting Shimabara

What is Shimabara known for?

Shimabara is known for being Japan’s “city of the koi,” where colorful Japanese carp swim through the city’s drains. On a darker note, it’s also known for having fallen victim to multiple eruptions of the nearby Unzen volcano over the centuries, and for a peasant uprising during feudal times.

Is Unzen worth visiting?

Although I went on a cloudy day and didn’t feel too excited about my life, I ended up highly enjoying Mt. Unzen—it’s definitely worth visiting, regardless of the circumstance. Even if you can’t ride the Unzen Ropeway to the top, walking through the sulfuric smoke of the hellish Unzen Jigoku is thrilling and atmospheric, to say nothing of the food and hospitality at your fingertips.

What happened in the Shimabara Peninsula?

The most notable historical event to take place in Shimabara was an uprising of local peasants against the rule of daimyo Matsukura Katsuie in the 17th century. It’s notable, among other reasons, because it led to the only execution of such a powerful ruler during the entire Edo period.

The Bottom Line

Is Shimabara worth visiting? Yes—especially if you nest a trip to nearby Mt. Unzen in with it. Famous on social media for being the town with koi in the drains, Shimabara is generally like a trip back in time, whether you visit its imposing castle or sip tea in an old villa. Heading up the slopes of Unzen takes the excursion full-circle, whether you ride the ropeway to the actual apex, or simply walk through volcanic steam at the Unzen Jigoku geothermal area. Need personalized help putting your trip to Kyushu together? I do hope you’ll consider commissioning a custom Japan itinerary!


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